A federal judge Wednesday reversed his decision to allow bond for a Florida Army National Guard soldier in custody on explosives charges after prosecutors released additional evidence they say shows the self-described neo-Nazi leader is a threat to the public.
The reversal raises more questions about why Pfc. Brandon Russell and a friend came to the Keys in late May loaded for bear in a car hauling cargo that included guns, military fatigues, a skull mask and homemade detonators.
United States Attorney’s Office prosecutors held an emergency hearing in Tampa Tuesday after Magistrate Judge Thomas McCoun agreed to set bond last Friday for Russell, 21, who was arrested May 21 at a Key Largo Burger King. Inside his car, Monroe County Sheriff’s Office deputies and FBI agents found two rifles, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, high-capacity magazines, his Army fatigues, binoculars and the skull mask.
“At present, the government proffers sufficient evidence for a finding the defendant poses a risk of harm to others should he be released,” McCoun wrote Wednessday, staying his June 9 order to allow $200,000 bond.
It was revealed this week in court documents that Russell was also traveling with fuses that prosecutors say could be used to detonate explosives.
“Photos showing the new fuses that were constructed during this time and seized at [Russell’s] arrest have no apparent innocent explanation and thus reflect threatening intentions as well,” McCoun wrote.
Two days before his arrest in the Keys, Russell admitted to FBI agents and Tampa Police Department officers investigating a double homicide at his apartment that explosives — hexamethane triperoxide diamine, or HMTD — and detonators stored in a garage underneath his home, were his and that he was a neo-Nazi. The two people murdered were his friends — Jeremy Himmelman, 22, and Andrew Oneschuk, 18. His roommate Devon Arthurs, 19, admitted to shooting them dead on May 19 because he said they repeatedly insulted his new-found Muslim faith.
Russell had just returned home from National Guard duty to find his friends’ bodies, and soon after, police officers and federal agents, who were brought to the apartment by Arthurs after a brief standoff with him at an area smoke shop.
Arthurs told police Russell had nothing to do with the murders, but that Russell, Himmelman and Oneschuk had plans to carry out terrorist attacks. While McCoun wrote that Arthurs was a “troubled individual” with a “rambling and disjointed mindset” attempting to justify “his unconscionable killings of two people,” he viewed his statement “consistent with what has been revealed so far about [Russell] and the lifestyle he engaged in.”
“[Russell] is placed at the head of a small neo-Nazi group with a militant bent, armed for violent confrontation, and capable of executing on plans to harm others and destroy property,” McCoun wrote.
Russell was allowed to leave Tampa after police and agents interviewed him about the explosives and neo-Nazi literature found in the apartment. The next day, May 20, FBI agents obtained an arrest warrant based on a U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives review of the HMTD and detonators, which were fuses threaded through 5.56-caliber shells.
Russell told authorities he was going to visit his father, who is in law enforcement, in West Palm Beach. Instead, he picked up a friend in Bradenton and the pair made their way to Homestead, where they bought the two rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition before heading south into the Keys.
Deputies searching Russell’s car in Key Largo found the two firearms, several cases of .223-caliber and 5.56-caliber ammunition and four 30-round magazines.
“Each of the four magazines were already loaded with about 25 rounds of the .223 caliber ammunition,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Josephine Thomas wrote in documents filed in federal court Monday.
Original reasoning for bond
McCoun wrote in his June 9 order that Russell is not a threat or flight risk and ruled he should be allowed bond and released until trial. Prosecutors immediately filed a motion to revoke the order.
“No condition or combination of conditions can be set to secure the safety of the community and Russell’s future appearance,” Thomas wrote.
Russell is charged with a felony count of possessing unregistered explosives and a misdemeanor count of illegally storing explosives and blasting devices. He faces a maximum 11-year sentence if convicted.
William Manley, deputy communications director with the Florida National Guard, said in an email that Russell remains an active member in the service.
“Private First Class Russell is still a member of the Florida National Guard. His status with the Florida National Guard will be reviewed pending the outcome of our internal investigation and/or the outcome of the federal prosecution,” Manley wrote.
In McCoun’s original order, he states he does not consider Russell a flight risk, in part, because his grandmother “is willing to post her house in Orlando to secure his release and both his mother and grandmother agree to act as a third-party custodian.”
Russell’s father is a “deputy sheriff” living in West Palm Beach, according to court documents. McCoun wrote his father’s profession lessens the likelihood his son would leave the state prior to trial.
McCoun called the purchasing of the rifles and bullets “concerning information,” but not compelling enough to hold Russell without bond. The judge also factored in Russell’s military service and his lack of a criminal or arrest record in his decision, concluding “he represents no real harm to others.”
Russell freely admitted to investigators his neo-Nazi beliefs and professed to being a member of a group called the Atomwaffen -- German for atomic weapon. Neo-Nazis posting on the “Iron March” online forum praise Russell, who they call “Odin,” mourn the loss of Himmelman and Oneschuk and blast Arthurs as a traitor for converting to Islam and committing the murders.
Police found a significant amount of white supremacist propaganda in Russell’s apartment, as well as a framed photograph in his bedroom of Timothy McVeigh, the man convicted of bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, in 1995.
Inside a cooler located in the garage directly underneath the apartment, investigators found a white cake-like substance that tested positive as HMTD, which can be used to make bombs. Also in the cooler were 5.56-caliber bullet casings with fuses that the FBI states could be used to detonate the HMTD.
Russell told police and FBI agents the HMTD, shells and fuses were his, but that they were for a rocket project he worked on several years earlier for a college engineering club. He was allowed to leave and told agents he was going to visit his father in West Palm Beach, but instead went to Bradenton to pick up his friend.
Russell’s friend, who was not arrested and is not named in court documents, told police and FBI agents he is also a neo-Nazi and originally met Russell online on “Iron March,” “where individuals discuss fascism, Nazism, and ‘current trends’ in hate for the government,” according to court documents. It is from Iron March where Atomwaffen was born, authorities believe.
The friend described Atomwaffen as a “more exclusive group than Iron March, with approximately 30 members from across the United States.” The friend told FBI agents Russell screened Iron March members who wanted to join Atomwaffen, “because they did not want people to join who were not committed to their beliefs or who were ‘complete idiots,’ ” according to court documents.
Russell’s friend said he also knew Arthurs, Himmelman and Oneschuk and planned to move in with them. He told investigators Russell came to his house May 20 and told him about the murders, and said he wanted to “get away and clear his head.” The friend quit his job, packed some things, gathered $3,000 and hit the road with Russell.
Despite the weaponry, ammunition, fatigues and skull mask found in Russell’s vehicle, his friend told FBI agents they did not plan to harm anyone, and the guns were for self defense.